|The Wild Irish Girl
Oxford World’s Classics series
I began my previous post with a quote summarising Georg Lukács claim to the distinctiveness of nineteenth century historical fiction and to how he argued for the role of academic and popular history in its creation: ‘It represents historical process, and in doing so gestures towards actual historical progress’. Last time I looked at the educative qualities stressed by nineteenth century writers and highlighted by Lukács and others. This time I will focus on its relationship to academic history.
If seventeenth century historical fiction related to French historiographical interest in Particular and Secret history then nineteenth century historical fiction related to the rise of nationalism, the professionalization of History, and the growing sense of historical change and otherness to the past.
One element in this re-invigorated genre during the following one hundred years was, then its predisposition to look at nationhood through the eyes of an outsider. In 1997 Ian Dennis set out a thesis looking at the role of nationalism in nineteenth-century historical fiction. Dennis wanted to look at how novelists ‘were shaped by, or resisted, the power of nationalism’ (Dennis, p. 1).
Of course Waverley is a prime example. Walter Scott focused on an Englishman as ‘the other’ finding himself embroiled in the Jacobite rebellion and in Highland and Lowland Scottish culture. As narrator Scott himself made several off-the-cuff notes as to not only the difference of time (i.e. that the culture he described was sixty years past) but also to the character of Scottish society as another world.
Dennis argues that nineteenth-century novelists employed a specific narrative pattern in regards to how they approached a sense of national identity. In the case of Ireland, Scotland or the United States that identity was often viewed through the lens of a foreigner, often English and often male. As a traveller to a foreign place the Englishman acted as the readers guide to a strange other place both in terms of location and time. In general the author who wrote about this Englishman was themselves from the country that the Englishman visited. Thus, a sense of nationhood was performed via the medium of an outsider, particularly that of ‘the overpowering national example of England’.
Dennis recounts various other novels as evidence of the other being used as a way to understand and examine a nation at any given time. Irish novelist Sydney Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl (1806) for example, begins with a descriptive image of the Irish from an English viewpoint:
“I remember, when I was a boy, meeting somewhere with the quaintly written travels of Moryson through Ireland, and being particularly struck with his assertion, that so late as the days of Elizabeth, an Irish chieftain and his family were frequently seen seated round their domestic fire in a state of perfect nudity. This singular anecdote (so illustrative of the barbarity of the Irish at a period when civilization had made such a wonderful progress even in its sister countries), fastened so strongly on my boyish imagination, that whenever the Irish were mentioned in my presence, an Esquimaux group circling round the fire which was to dress a dinner, or broil an enemy, was the image which presented itself to my mind; and in this trivial source, I believe, originated that early formed opinion of Irish ferocity, which has since been nurtured into a confirmed prejudice.” (Owenson, vol. 1, Letter 1).
The description is an attempt by Owenson to depict the English prejudice and perception that the Irish are a barbarous people. But it is also intended, through the narrative of the novel itself, as a mask that is shown to be false. The novel then is to be seen as educative in that it reveals to the reader their own prejudices and shows them a glimpse of the truth about Elizabethan and indeed contemporary Ireland.
The interest in examining nationalism through historical fiction was equally as present in academic history and indeed in mainstream politics, society and culture. At the same time academic history was increasingly being codified, organised and moulded into a scientifically based discipline. No longer was History to be the preserve of amateur enthusiasts and antiquarians.
Ian Dennis, Nationalism and Desire in Early Historical Fiction (MacMillan Press: London, 1997).
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